Launch of a Delta II rocket from Cape Canavaral, Florida, carrying a satellite ©Simon Norfolk 2008
Simon Norfok is no stereotypical war photographer. Yet conflict – or more precisely the chinks of accessibility on its margins, along with its aftermath – is one of the major preoccupations of his work. Shot in large format and on an old rosewood camera, his images – often landscapes and largely devoid of people – tend to be aesthetically pleasing. In beauty though there can be terror – an idea he finds seductive.
“I like the idea that some beautiful things can both terrorise and petrify,” he says. “It’s not possible for me to feel awe at a thunderstorm in a Godless world because I know how it’s created. But I can feel a lot of awe in weaponry – particularly American weaponry. It’s very possible to feel terrible fearfulness about what human beings can do when they put their minds to it.”
Norfolk turned up as one of two keynote speakers at Conflict and the Camera, an event at the Imperial War Museum North this weekend, along with Mines Advisory Group and Panos photographer Sean Sutton, who I’ve previously written about here. In some ways the two are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of approach but neither veers into the cliched photographer-as-hero mode.
Norfolk explains it thus: “Conflict photographers seem to fall into two categories. One is the post-traumatic stress disorder candidate with the thousand-yard stare…the wreckage of war like Don McCullin. The other is the type painted by Hollywood films – the heroic, passionate type. I never call myself a war photographer. I’m far more interested in this as a political idea.
“The only people who benefit from war are the weapons manufacturers. The United States accounts for more than half of all military spending in the entire world, which is incredible when you think about it. So my focus is more on imperialism than on war or human suffering. That’s why I was baffled when someone asked me whether I was going to go and take photos in Haiti following the earthquake, which was an act of God. The implication being that I’m good at rubble.”
Norfolk’s background is in editorial photography but he soon left the commissions merry-go-round and now defines himself as an artist. Eighty per cent of his income comes from print sales, the majority being huge prints which cost thousands of dollars and go to wealthy collectors. It’s an idea which he admits can be uncomfortable but it frees him up to do what he wants.
Today he is most influenced by artists from the 19th century and seeks to capture elements from his favourite paintings in his own images – whether it’s light quality, composition or the inclusion of imperial ruins. “My favourite war photograph is Robert Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death,” he says. “All it is is a load of cannonballs, but to me it’s a seduction – it asks you to imagine what it was like to be in this place when it was a hail of cannonballs. Those absences are appealing to me as a photographer. There are no bodies and no hospitals and no need for them.”
The future battlespace is preoccupying Norfolk today, as is the idea of how photographers should respond to it. Nightmarish weapons are, he warns, being devised today for use in wars in the coming years – beams that fry people from the inside out and fuel bombs which suck people’s internal organs from their bodies when detonated close to cave systems.
We are already seeing some battles in Iraq and Afghanistan – not to mention drone attacks in Pakistan – being fought remotely from computer terminals thousands of miles away in America. While hand-to-hand combat still exists, this is only likely to increase, presenting a host of challenges to photographers who need to capture pictures of something which is, as Norfolk puts it, “fundamentally unphotographable.”
His solution for the time being is to look for what he calls “liminals” – the cracks or thresholds where the apparatus of war becomes visible or photographable. Hence his project Full Spectrum Dominance, which looks at rocket ranges, satellite launches, nuclear bomb release buttons, warheads and the like. Beauty of a truly terrifying kind. Well worth a look.